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on Dec 22, 2010

A former philosophy professor, 52-year-old writer-director Bruno Dumont got his start making commercial films in the ’80s, eventually penning a novel that served as the basis for his extraordinary 1996 debut La Vie de Jesus. Filmed in the tiny provincial hamlet of Bailleul, France, where Dumont grew up, this story of a listless gang of moped-riding teens has nothing at all to do with the Gospels: it is an oblique title for a movie that begins and ends with a death, and whose epileptic protagonist is an odd-looking, hauntingly inexpressive adolescent. Humanité, which won the Grand Prix at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, mined a similar Bressonian aesthetic, scrutinizing an introverted, socially inept policeman who empathizes with a litter of pigs and accused criminals. Unlike his other films, which took years to complete, Twentynine Palms (2003) was conceived on the fly while Dumont was scouting locations in California, and the emphasis on mood and environment—the terror of vast spaces and naked instinct—provided an objective correlative for the languorous meanderings and raw, animalistic lovemaking of a doomed couple. In Dumont’s hands, the desert setting felt alien and isolating, more like a desolate moonscape than John Ford’s mythic America. Menace and foreboding hang in the air, ennui permeates the lovers’ futile attempts at conversation, and it all culminates in a Grand Guignol of psychosexual terror. With Flanders, another Cannes Grand Prix winner in 2006, Dumont returned to rural France to mount a story about the brutality of war, winning new converts to his earthy, visceral, often disturbing vision of human existence.

Dumont’s latest drama Hadewijch (winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival) is an idiosyncratic take on spiritual grace that will further challenge those who have seen only grim, unrelenting austerity and sociopathic barbarism in his earlier work. Admonished by a head nun for taking her self-mortification rituals to an extreme, fair-skinned acolyte Céline (beautifully embodied by Julie Sokolowski) is ejected from the isolated rustic convent where she’s taken the name Hadewijch (after the 13th-century mystic) and told to find her calling back in the modern world she has abandoned. Resolute in her anguished longing to commune with God, and ill at ease in her upper-class family’s absurdly ostentatious city apartments, Céline strikes up a friendship with Arab teenager Yassine (Yassine Chikh), who chats her up in a café and then makes a pass during an evening concert in the park. She resists his kiss, claiming Christ as the only true object of her desire, but the two remain on good terms. Yassine later introduces Céline to his older brother Nassir (Nassir Chikh), a fundamentalist Muslim who senses in this pious young innocent an opportunity to exploit his own ideological, and possibly violent, aims. Exploring the human yearning for spiritual meaning and the ways in which fervent belief can be twisted by fanaticism, Hadewijch has a strong resonance with today’s headline-making reports of faith-based terror. Most remarkable is how Dumont approaches Céline’s predicament–how do I live? what’s the proper way to express belief?–with delicacy, respect, and uncommon empathy, portraying a young woman whose worldly path may be compromised by naiveté but whose plain-faced humility before divine feeling is never in question.

Filmmaker spoke with Dumont about primitivism, religious faith, the relationship between cinema and mysticism, and why filmmakers-in-training should be instructed to shoot industrial machines.

Filmmaker: Something I’ve heard you express many times is your interest in the origins of civilization, the instincts and sensibilities and primitive desires that have driven the creation of society. I wonder if that remains a point of fascination for you.

Dumont: Yes, absolutely. I very much like filming beginnings, awakenings. It’s something I never tire of.

Filmmaker: Connected to the idea of human cultural origins, certainly, is religion and spirituality. How would you define your interest, generally speaking, in religious traditions?

Dumont: I think that religion is very much at the heart of things. But I also think that today it should return to the theater of its origins. Religion is an archaic feeling—nonetheless, it’s an important feeling for humanity. I believe we should place religion back whence it came but we still need the spiritual in our daily lives. It’s something that’s essential for modern life. And this is something I’m trying to deal with in the character of Hadewijch, to place it in a modern context. Hadewijch is someone for whom the religious spirituality dies in a church and she’s reborn to human spirituality by the end of the film. At least that’s what I was trying to express.

Filmmaker: It seems to me this has been an interest of your across your work, but here it’s given a more overt expression, a mystical accent.

Dumont: I’m very interested in forms of mysticism. I think mysticism is essentially cinematographic. It’s present in my form of expression, it’s a vision that is very rich and something that I think has a lot in common with cinema. In fact, I think that mystical experience helps me understand cinema better. When you’re approaching mysticism, then you’re dealing with something that has nothing to do with the rational, logical mind. It reaches zones or areas touching on ecstasy, ecstatic experiences that I find absolutely astonishing. And I feel that when I’m making a film very quickly, I reach over into this other side, I attain this nonlogical, nonverbal area. It’s an experience I don’t entirely understand, but which interests me deeply.

Filmmaker: I think connected to the rapture and ecstasy of mystical experiences is the idea of renunciation and abstinence, which is the engine or tool for such an experience. Do you find that by subtracting things from your cinema you are in fact approaching that state?

Dumont: Yes, absolutely, there’s a connection—and there’s a moral aspect to directing. I’m searching for approaches to filmmaking that have moralistic elements to them and that comprise rules. I impose rules. For example, on the actress [Julie Sokolowski], I forbade her to eat or sleep before shooting. In the same way, I chose an aspect ratio of 1:66 that was very constricting for me, limiting the frame to exactly what’s essential. Also, I shot the film using mono sound. So these constraints that I impose on myself also impose certain choices and force us to limit ourselves. It’s true there’s a process of taking away and purifying or paring down to what’s essential. I make films with very little money, but surprisingly enough it’s not a problem. On the contrary, it’s very helpful to what I’m doing. It’s extraordinary to make a film about religious faith with an actress who has absolutely no belief in God whatsoever. But these contradictions force us to work harder. Surprisingly, I found that the more paradoxical things were, the better the film works. It’s something I don’t understand—and that I find very disturbing.

Filmmaker: We get a stronger sense of Céline as a conscious person in Hadewijch than we have before with your other protagonists.

Dumont: It’s true that Hadewijch, the character in this film, has more culture, she knows how to talk, she is used to addressing God and even speaking to Him. I think the characters in my other films were more mystical. They were more contemplative, whereas Hadewijch exists through the word—she’s able to express the suffering that she feels in God’s absence. Of course, culturally and socially, she’s more developed than the characters in my previous films, but I don’t think, through what she says, that she expresses more than the other characters. I don’t think she’s more flamboyant.

Filmmaker: I was intrigued by Céline’s journey from the cloister to the secular environment of her family, and then into Nassir’s world and his notions of faith, which are very different from hers and involve engagement. There’s the violence she feels through her love for God, and then there’s the violence of worldly conflict and martyrdom.

Dumont: It’s impossible to conceive of life without this sense of conflict, there’s no escaping that it’s at the heart of our culture. Conflict is movement. We are all fighters really, in our nature, born to struggle. We can say that’s it’s wrong, this conflict, but the mystic philosophers say that it’s necessary for us to evolve. The mind tells us that conflict is wrong, that we should try to avoid it, but the mind is quite stupid in that.

Filmmaker: In the past, as a philosophy instructor, you taught Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, but gave it up. What ideas did you find frustrating trying to translate in a classroom that you felt might be more intuitively apprehensible in cinema?

Dumont: That’s very easy to answer. Philosophy is an intellectual discipline. Its tools are concepts, whereas film is about movement, it’s about capturing “being” onscreen. I find that when I’m shooting a stream in a field, for example, then I’m filming a being. It’s far easier to understand, less complicated, less intellectual. When I’m filming on a set, then I’m referring to the human condition and the nature of things with a force of expression that no concept on its own can transmit. It’s extremely accessible, yet infinitely profound. Philosophy, on the contrary, is extremely complicated. You can see from the difficulty he has transforming words [gesturing to the translator] how complicated philosophy is. [Smiles]

Filmmaker: When you first started out as a commercial director, you spent a lot of time filming machines. How did that experience shape your approach to filmmaking?

Dumont: Those films were my training. They taught me to look for elements of interest in things that were absolutely devoid of interest, to try to find ways of filming them that would be interesting, to find means of expression in the montage, in the narration that I gave them, to find ways of making a spectator be moved by a machine that had no emotion whatsoever. It helped me understand making films better. When you’re dealing with such austerity, it forces you to think about where you’re going to put your camera, how you’re going to set up your shot. I think if in film schools we asked students to shoot machines, that would be very useful for them.

Filmmaker: How do you position yourself in relation to an audience?

Dumont: My position is very paradoxical. When I’m making a film, I’m not concerned with how a spectator will respond. I’m not working to make the films accessible, but at the same time, I have a great deal of respect for the audience because I’m aware that it’s through their gaze that my film will be completed. I realize I’m an individual just like any other member of the audience, and I think if there is a dignity to cinema, it lies in the audience who receives the film and completes it.

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